Marian Pallister: Nuclear weapons prohibition is a step closer – but we have to keep going to reach the summit

Marian Pallister, chair of Pax Christi Scotland, says the 50th ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is an important milestone for the global anti-nukes movement, but they have not yet reached the summit. I think that being a hill walker helps. When you climb a Munro  – those Scottish hills over […]

Marian Pallister, chair of Pax Christi Scotland, says the 50th ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is an important milestone for the global anti-nukes movement, but they have not yet reached the summit.

I think that being a hill walker helps. When you climb a Munro  – those Scottish hills over 3000 feet high (or 914.4 metres, in new money) – you know that what looks promisingly like the summit is in fact merely a ridge to be negotiated on the way up.

That, in truth, is how the 50th ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) must be viewed. We are a long way up, but the summit is still to be reached, and there is still some tough climbing to be done.

There is no denying that this is a milestone worth getting very excited about. In 90 days from that lodging on 24 October of the Honduras ratification, the manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons will become illegal.

There will be more signatories to the treaty (122 countries adopted the treaty at the UN in 2017); more ratifications in the coming days and weeks. But as the chair of Pax Christi Scotland, I have to say that the top of the Munro feels only a few metres closer, rather than that we’re bounding towards the home stretch.

Scotland is in an odd position. Its government stated its opposition to nuclear weapons in 2017. The Scottish Catholic Bishops’ Conference condemned the possession and use of nuclear weapons as far back as 1982. Pax Christi International welcomed Pax Christi Scotland as a member country working for a nonviolent society. And yet, we can’t appear on that list of signatories to the treaty; can’t be feted as another country to ratify it. 

Scotland has nuclear weapons imposed on its soil (so near the most populated area of the country as to make the central belt a target). It hosts a number of companies that manufacture component parts for these weapons of mass destruction. A number of Scotland’s councils, companies and organisations have pension funds invested in the production of nuclear weapons. And of course, the Westminster government has long insisted that not only will it not sign the nuclear ban treaty, but it will also go ahead and renew its lease on the Trident nuclear submarine base and all that’s in it at a cost estimated by Scottish CND at £205 billion. 

Where is the top of this mountain?

First of all, let’s acknowledge that we just host nuclear weapons. If we look at the list of states that have ratified the treaty, there are a number in the South Pacific. That’s because after dropping the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US, UK, the Soviet Union, France, et al, used the islands of the South Pacific as a testing ground for the development of bigger and better nuclear weapons. The fallout devastated populations, environments, and economies.

Gerry MacPherson lived in Argyll. I got to know him towards the end of his foreshortened life. He was an interesting man on a mission. As a young man, he was one of the last in the UK to do National Service. He was posted to Christmas Island – Kiritimati to give its indigenous name – where he soon discovered that the British army’s Operation Grapple Y H-bomb test on April 28 1958 had left the island and its people poisoned by the fallout. 

This wasn’t initially obvious, but Gerry and his fellow young servicemen were made frighteningly aware of it – and of the effects it would have on them – when they joined some locals on the beach to picnic on fish straight from the ocean. Larking about, they ran a Geiger counter over someone who had eaten the fish. The reading was alarmingly high.

Gerry came back to Argyll with a damaged pituitary gland. That’s the gland that among other vital functions helps control growth, blood pressure, energy management, the performance of sex organs, thyroid glands and metabolism. Like so many of those who came back from doing their National Service in the South Pacific, Gerry was never able to prove that the damage was done while he was there. But he joined an organisation to fight for compensation for all those people who had returned with the kinds of illnesses seen in Japan after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It was a lifelong campaign and his widow, Mary, says he vowed to give any compensation to the people of Christmas Island who had suffered so badly.

There was no compensation in his lifetime – but this treaty promises to change that. There is a clause in the TPNW that will now seek to compensate and care for those who have been affected by such tests and to restore environments. Those effects are far reaching and by rights should stretch far beyond the damaged islands of the South Pacific to those who still survive from their time posted there.

So we keep on campaigning. These 50 ratifications are a joyful staging post, but to get the full benefit of every bit of the Treaty, we have work to do.

Pax Christi Scotland has joined with Don’t Bank On The Bomb Scotland and has been accepted as a partner of the Nobel Peace Prize winning organisation ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons). We will challenge the Scottish financial institutions and public bodies with over £6 billion invested in companies that make nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Divestment will starve those companies of the cash needed to carry on their deadly business, and Covid-19 has shown they have the capacity to diversify, thus safeguarding jobs. 

Innovative thinking will move us all to the top of the mountain and perhaps even bring the Westminster government into a 21st century where peace is paramount.